Category: Action/Adventure


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If your romance doesn’t break new ground or provide deep and true insight into the relations between man & woman (or whatever your romantic pairings are), your only hope of a watchable film is the spark of real chemistry between your stars. Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing is a fairly conventional “forbidden love” romantic drama, but the chemistry between William Holden and Jennifer Jones was sizzling and it made the film enjoyable despite the melodrama. Similarly, Penny Serenade is typical 1940s romance, but Irene Dunne made you wholly believe her love for Cary Grant (I’ve never believed Cary Grant’s interest in any woman on screen because he’s seemingly incapable of even pretending to be attracted to a woman). The African Queen transcends it’s dime-novel source material thanks to the fierce chemistry of leads Humphrey Bogart (To Have and Have Not) and Katharine Hepburn (Bringing Up Baby).

Director John Huston (perfect as the villain of Chinatown) brings a standard boy’s adventure tale to the big screen but, through sheer technical prowess and wonderful performances all around, pulls a gorgeous, almost lyrical tale of class, romance, and will from such meager starts. With one of the best performances of Bogie’s career (and the one that he would win his Oscar for) and an archetypal Hepburn turn, The African Queen isn’t a great film, but in the world of classic adventure movies, it’s hard to find one with more heart and sheer fun.

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After her minister brother is murdered by German soldiers during the early days of World War 1 outside of their African church, British missionary Rose Sayer (Katharine Hepburn) is forced to seek passage back to England with the help of rough-edged steamboat captain Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart) on the titular African Queen. But, getting back to England will be more difficult than navigating the already dangerous rapids of the African river. Their only path back into British territory involves crossing a lake guarded by one of the most powerful gunboats in the German fleet.

There is nothing exceptional in the storytelling of The African Queen. The central romance hinges on the classic “rough and uncultured man is tamed by the strong-willed high class Lady” theme, and The African Queen plays zero games with that set-up throughout. The adventure is a series of set pieces where our hero and heroine almost lose their life but persevere, and the film doesn’t take many breaks to really allow these characters to breathe though a bit in the middle where Rose finally pours out all of Charlie’s gin that the movie lets you see some of the bite beneath Bogart’s  bark.

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But, The African Queen has to be a textbook example of how sheer filmcraft can overcome a conventional story (that also happens to be well-told despite its familiarity). The Technicolor photography still looks vibrant and beautiful 63 years later. It’s possible that you’ve never truly experienced the color green until you see this film in all of its remastered HD glory. The film’s major action set-pieces are something of a mixed bag because the sections that actually look like they were shot in Africa (much of the film was) make the green screen segments that much more embarrassingly dated and fake looking.

And, of course, Bogart and Hepburn make the most out of roles that are more caricature than character. As Rose Sayer, Hepburn crafts the type of character that I think of when I envision Hepburn (even if I had never seen this film before): strong-willed, middle-aged, spinster-ish with a romantic heart, and fiercer than any man on screen. Hepburn tends to bowl over her male leads with the strength of her personality, but in Bogart’s Allnut, she finally found a man as crazy and stubborn as her, and the emotional pyrotechnics as they match wits made the entire film worthwhile.

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Bogart didn’t live long past the shooting of this film. The African Queen was released in 1951 and he passed away from esophageal cancer in 1957, and part of me suspects that the rough, lean look Bogie has in this film can be attributed to the onset of his illness, and as one of the last great performances from one of Hollywood’s most iconic stars, The African Queen simply can’t be missed. At the end of the day, it never stops being a rousing adventure, but in an era where action movies had artistry, who can rightly complain?

Final Score: B+

 

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When I think of John Ford, I think of the wide open Western expanses that define practically every shot of classics like The Searchers. When I think of John Wayne movies, I think of the straightforward moralism of The Cowboys. When I think of James Stewart (barring the final act of Vertigo), I think of the archetypal “Aw, shucks” All-American of It’s a Wonderful Life. So, when all three combine to make such a jarringly out-of-character film for all involved, it should be no secret that I found The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance to be among the most interesting of the “classic” Westerns this side of High Noon.

Far more a commentary on the death of the Wild West than a traditional oater, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is unlike any Western of the era or, honestly, any other film of John Ford’s career. Removing itself from the iconic Western vistas that are Ford’s metier and placing itself in crowded homes and claustrophobic streets, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance captures the transformation of the West from a lawless frontier to the first stirrings of civilization and law & order. And most surprisingly of all, the film has something honest and fresh to say on ethics that remains fresh 52 years later.

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After his stagecoach is robbed by the brutal bandit and bully Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) and he’s beaten within an inch of his life, East Coast lawyer Ransom Stoddard (Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation‘s James Stewart) is rescued by the rough but generally decent gunslinger and rancher Tom Doniphan (The Longest Day‘s John Wayne). Ransom has had every penny to his name and every last worldly possession stolen by the untouchable Liberty Valance and as he has to start from scratch to recover his assets and make a name for himself in the dangerous town of Shinbone.

Shinbone’s Marshall, Link Appleyard (Andy Devine), is a fat, slovenly coward and even though everybody in town knows Liberty Valance is a crook and a murderer, he won’t lift a finger to bring him to justice. Tom is the only man in town with enough nerve and talent with a gun to stand up to Liberty, but Liberty knows well enough to stay out of Tom’s way to avoid taking a bullet from him. But Ransom wants Liberty brought to justice. However, unlike every other Western hero ever, justice to ransom doesn’t mean a shoot out in the streets. It means a trial and jail. But, in a town without a competent criminal justice system, Tom’s way of the bullet could be the only true answer.

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The film’s framing device is that decades later, Ransom Stoddard has returned to Shinbone for Tom’s funeral. Ransom is now a U.S. Senator and he could be the Vice-President of the United States if he wished. And, through a story given to a local newspaperman, we hear the real story of the legend that shot him into political stardom. But, in actuality, it gives the film an example to delve into one of the most important philosophical debates of all time: What is more valuable, truth or results? And, to an extent, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance comes down on the utilitarian side of that equation.

I can’t explore those themes too deeply without ruining the film (although, considering the fact that it’s 52 years old, I wouldn’t feel too guilty if I did), but time and time again, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance proves itself to be more psychologically and philosophically minded than the vast majority of its late 50s/early 60s peers. The film is essentially an argument that the American West that Ford himself helped to mythologize in the American conscious had to end, and that the typical John Wayne heroes of the past didn’t have a place in the modern world.

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James Stewart plays a character that is simultaneously a deconstruction of the Mr. Smith Goes to Washington typical Stewart idealist as well as an argument for why society needs men like him. I’ve probably said this before on this blog, but James Stewart is one of my all-time favorite actors (not necessarily one of the ones I think is the best), and along with Vertigo, this is certainly one of his most complex and demanding roles. And as we Ransom struggling to balance his desire for law & order and due process against the brutal realities of the old West, Stewart captures all of the character’s frustration and desperation.

John Wayne and Lee Marvin also shine in the two primary supporting roles (even if Wayne gets top billing in the film, Ransom is the main character). Tom may ultimately be a good man, but he’s also a bitter roughneck who isn’t afraid to be a bully when he needs to make a point. Along with The Searchers, it’s one of the more complicated characters of Wayne’s usually pure white hat career. And Lee Marvin might not have the most fully-written character in the titular Liberty Valance, but he makes the man drip venom and anger, and he steals every scene he’s in, even if he’s not afraid to chew the scenery a little bit.

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I wrote half of this review last night and True Detective is coming on in five minutes (seriously, watch that show; it’s the best new HBO show since The Wire and easily the best show on TV right now) so I’ll draw this review to a close. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is the Western that even non-Western fans can get behind. In fact, it’s so drama-driven that fans of more traditional, action-driven old West epics may find it to be a bit of a bore. But for everyone with an open mind for the possibilities of Western storytelling, it’s a must see classic deserving of the title.

Final Score: A-

 

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When Robert Rodriguez (The Faculty) burst onto the scene with the micro-budgeted El Mariachi in 1992, it was clear to the entire film loving world that despite that film’s lack of polish, Rodriguez was going to soon be a major player in stylistic film-making. Cue three years later with his debut studio feature, Desperado, and Rodriguez shot himself into alternative superstardom. I hadn’t seen Desperado in probably over ten years before I watched it for this blog, and I had completely forgotten that Desperado might be the greatest B-movie ever made.

Working within the realm of mythic folk heroes, neo-Westerns, and John Woo action crime thrillers, Desperado is such an astonishing second effort that one can only imagine what Rodriguez could have done on El Mariachi if he’d had more than $7,000 to make the film. Understanding that I’m in the vast minority here with regards to how highly I now hold this film, I can name few other action films that drip with so much wit, playfulness, and energy as Desperado. If Rodriguez had kept this type of quality up his entire career, he could have been as important to the industry as his good friend Quentin Tarantino.

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Desperado is a unique film in that it is both a sequel to the original El Mariachi as well as a sort of spiritual remake in that it’s the kind of movie Rodriguez wanted to make but didn’t have the money back in 1992 which is why elements of the plot feel somewhat familiar. Replacing the first film’s Carlos Gallardo, Antiono Banderas (Puss in Boots) plays the unnamed El Mariachi. Several years after witnessing the murder of the woman he loved and getting shot through the hand, El Mariachi is a whirlwind force of justice in the small border towns between the US and Mexico dispensing vigilante justice on the drug crews that were responsible for the murder of his love.

With the help of his partner Buscemi (Interview‘s Steve Buscemi), El Mariachi has attained a mythic status in the haunts of the Mexican drug dealers including a bar secretly run for the powerful cartel head Bucho (Joaquim de Almeida). Bucho was the real head of the cartel that killed El Mariachi’s lover, and El Mariachi believes that Bucho is the last man standing in the way of his quest for vengeance. But when El Mariachi meets the beautiful Carolina (Salma Hayek) as well as a young boy who wants to learn the guitar, he must decide what he will sacrifice to get his revenge.

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Quentin Tarantino shows up in this film (Desperado predates their partnership for From Dusk Til Dawn by only a year), and it’s clear that Tarantino’s early work was having on influence on Rodriguez’s writing (and would have an influence for years to come). In the film’s brilliant opening segment, Buscemi goes to the bad guy bar (with the great Cheech Marin in a small bit part) to put the fear of El Mariachi in these criminals (and to see if they recognize El Bucho’s name). It’s one long, extended story told by Buscemi (with visual accompaniment), but it adds to the mythic nature of the film as well as its own awareness of its pulpy roots.

What makes Desperado great though (even in a way that Tarantino’s later works like Django Unchained fail to achieve) is that it is entirely self-aware without winking at the audience. Desperado knows it’s an action movie where Antonio Banderas blows drug dealers across rooms while duel-wielding shotgun-pistols (not making that up) and owns a cod-piece machine gun. And it knows that it can’t take itself too seriously under that premise. But, Desperado manages to walk that balancing act of being self-aware and tongue-in-cheek without playing every moment for laugh (though I must admit that I was cackling with glee during some of the film’s more ridiculous moments).

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Antonio Banderas has become more of a caricature than a legitimate actor over the last ten years, but Desperado reminds me of why he had the potential to become such an exciting figure (alongside his great, smaller performance in Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia). El Mariachi is larger than life. He’s essentially a comic book superhero thrown into the dusty streets of Mexico fighting knife-throwing psychopaths (a memorable and early role for Danny Trejo) and Mexican drug dealers. And Antonio Banderas has all the cocksure bravura and swagger (with just the right sensitivity) to nail the role.

The movie loses just a little bit of its special energy and insanity in the final act. A plot twist arrives totally out of nowhere that feels a little too “wink wink” unless it too was played straight in which case it was poor writing for entirely different reasons. The romance between El Mariachi and Carolina doesn’t cohere in a plot sense though the sizzling sexual chemistry between Banderas and Hayek was so intense that it threatened to derail the film. They have a love scene that is among the absolute sexiest in mainstream cinema. Desperado might not be quite perfect, but as far as B-movies go, it’s more than you could ever hope for.

Final Score: A-

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The moral spectrum of pre-Clint Eastwood Westerns (High Noon being a notable exception) is fairly easy to delineate. The criminals wear black hats; the heroes wear white hats; and all is right at the end of the day. If there are Indians, they are the bad guys as well. 1953’s Hondo attempts to be a thematically complex film in the vein of High Noon, and while what it believes to be its own enlightened attitude is actually dated and somewhat offensive by today’s standards, Hondo‘s take on the eternal Western conflict between white settles and Native Americans is years ahead of its time. With a constantly surprisingly sympathetic portrayal of the Apache, despite their place as the film’s villains, Hondo is a frustrating film that makes steps forward in Native American portrayal in American cinema while also still indulging in racist Hollywood stereotypes.

John Wayne (The Searchers) plays “Hondo” Lane, a half-Apache loner making a living riding dispatch for the United States army in the Western territories as the peace treaty between the U.S. and the Apache has fallen apart because the U.S. broke the treaty and killed Apache without cause. After being ambushed by an Apache patrol, Hondo loses his horse and wanders on foot with his loyal dog Sam into the ranch of abandoned wife Angie Lowe (The Pope of Greenwich Village‘s Geraldine Page) and her young son Johnny (Lee Aaker). Angie’s husband is a worthless layabout and months ago he left Angie and Johnny behind to drink and gamble away his days in a nearby town, leaving Angie to the mercy of any natives who would happen upon her ranch.

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Despite Hondo’s warnings to abandon their ranch because the Apache are on the warpath, Angie and her son stay and Hondo rides off to continue his job. In his absence, an Apache war party led by the noble Vittorio (Michael Pate) invades the Lowe ranch. Angie tries to invoke the friendly relationship her family has had with the Apache in the past but it is to no avail. She and her son are only saved when her son tries to kill one of the Apache warriors to save his mother. Vittorio recognizes the courage of the young boy and makes him an official Apache warrior and leaves mother and son in peace though he tells Angie that she has until the next planting season to choose an Apache husband. And when Hondo realizes that the Lowe’s are in the path of the Apache, he makes his way back towards their ranch with Angie’s jealous husband in his wake.

I say that this film is progressive for the early 1950s but still terribly offensive by modern standards because it gives context for the Apache being pissed off and murdering people as well as creating an almost heroic Apache figure, but it also indulges in many of the worst “noble savage” stereotypes of Western storytelling and once Vittorio disappears from the film, the Apache devolve into a crazed murderous horde with seemingly no direction. But, when Vittorio is around and he’s testing both the Lowe family as well as the values of the half-Apache Hondo, the film seems like it actually has something to say. That thematic energy not only disappears upon his second act death, but the film loses any sense of context or meaning.

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Geraldine Page was nominated for an Academy Award for this film, and although I don’t know if I thought there was anything particularly Oscar-worthy about her performance, she was certainly a better performer than John Wayne. The only thing John Wayne’s ever had going for him was presence, and unlike The Searchers, he doesn’t get the opportunity to put his presence to a more subversive effect. The film also has Gunsmoke‘s James Arness in a smaller bit part, and it was clear just from his few lines that he was going to be somebody later on. John Wayne’s status as one of Hollywood’s most enduring icons has always been something that’s confused me. He’s not a great actor or even a particularly good one, and Hondo most certainly doesn’t rank in the top tier of Wayne roles.

Hondo starts off ponderously slow although it does thankfully take that time to establish the details of life on the Lowe farm as well as Hondo’s past living with the Apache. The action does eventually kick up once Hondo leaves the farm for the first time and realizes that Angie and Johnny being in danger isn’t something he can turn his back on (especially since her husband won’t be doing anything to help them). And for a while, Hondo becomes a surprisingly enjoyable old-fashioned oater. But, it sadly falls apart by the film’s end and the progressive stances it was trying to make early on become merely an interesting afterthought in the story of Hondo. For fans of Westerns, it’s worth a watch. Everybody else can skip out.

Final Score: B-

 

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Have you ever encountered a sequel in a franchise where it’s clear that overall the product is significantly better but because fundamental structural issues haven’t been addressed, it’s hard to appreciate the improvements? It’s a common phenomenon in video games with yearly sequels where significant mechanical tweaks are made but the formula starts to feel stale and basic problems are never really solved. It’s never something I’ve encountered with a film franchise before The Hunger Games though. Long time readers will know that I consider the book to be a considerable improvement over its predecessor, but maybe because the first Hunger Games film was already an improvement over the source material, it’s hard to appreciate the strides this entry made.

Suzanne Collins is a good storyteller but her prose is woefully deficient and it makes reading the books a slog. And one of the wonderful benefits of the film version was that I wasn’t forced to wade through her amateurish mastery of the English language (not to mention Gary Ross’s compelling direction and conception of what Panem would look like). And since the book of Catching Fire improved her storytelling ten fold (by truly fleshing out the world that Katniss and company inhabited), I assumed that the movie would be even better. But, perhaps it was not having the poor prose to distract me, this time I was forced to acknowledge even deeper problems in the Hunger Games universe.

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Before this review takes on an overly negative turn, let there be no misunderstanding that I thoroughly enjoyed Catching Fire and it joins Star Trek Into Darkness and Iron Man 3 as one of this year’s blockbusters with actual brains. As far as modern dystopian science fiction for teenagers go, I’m hard-pressed to name a franchise with wider reach than The Hunger Games that also deserves said fandom. The action set-pieces during the film’s third act eclipse those even in the first, and the number of stars that director Francis Lawrence gathered for this entry is almost mind-boggling. But, and I’ll elaborate on this more shortly, one glaring problem with the film kept me from totally immersing myself this time around.

For those who haven’t seen the first one (or read the book), stop now because I’m about to spoil the ending for you. After finding a way to keep herself and fellow District 12 Tribute Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) alive during the 74th annual Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen (Winter’s Bone‘s Jennifer Lawrence) quickly discovers that surviving the Hunger Games was the easy part. Forced on a circus publicity tour around the 12 districts of PanEm, Katniss learns that she has become the symbol of an uprising against the totalitarian Capital. But if she wants to keep her and her family alive, she’s going to have to prove to President Snow (Don’t Look Now‘s Donald Sutherland) that her fake love with Peeta which got her through the Hunger Games is real and it’s real enough to subdue the uprising.

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But, the film would be really boring if it was just Jennifer Lawrence pretending to love the emotionally reserved (and supremely dull) Josh Hutcherson, and in order to ensure that Katniss can’t become the face of the revolution, President Snow and the new Gamemaker for the 75th Annual Hunger Games, Plutarch Heavensbee (Synecdoche, New York‘s Phillip Seymour Hoffman), devise a wrinkle to this year’s game. Known as the Quarter Quell, every 25 years the Hunger Games rules are changed dramatically and this year, the tributes are chosen from a pool of past winners and both Katniss and Peeta inevitably have their names drawn.

In my review of the book, I talked about how Catching Fire‘s lengthy prelude (the action doesn’t really begin until the film’s final act) added context to the Hunger Games universe. Not only did we learn more about the different districts and why revolution has been so effectively suppressed (but also why Katniss is the spark needed to make it… catch fire), but by spending time getting to know the other tributes, it allowed their to be more characters with depth beyond Katniss and Peeta. Of course, the introduction of great supporting characters like Finnick (Sam Claflin), Johanna (Donnie Darko‘s Jena Malone), and Beete (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close‘s Jeffrey Wright) is that it subjects Katniss to the film’s biggest problem: boring protagonist syndrome.

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Katniss is one of the great female heroines of the modern age alongside Harry Potter‘s Hermione and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo‘s Lisbeth Salander. She’s a total bad-ass and her life isn’t primarily devoted to her romantic interests (unlike a certain resident of Forks, Washington) though she’s allowed to have a romance. But, Katniss is also something of a blank slate and a cipher for readers to project themselves onto and while she’s usually defined by her bad-ass feat of heroics, if she’s not killing something with a bow, you realize there isn’t any depth to this girl (at least until Mockingjay).

And the first film solved this problem by having Katniss constantly doing something cool. There’s more exposition and universe-building in Catching Fire and, thus, more time to see Katniss interacting with others, and except when she’s playing across the wooden and entirely one-dimensional Peeta, everyone in the film is more compelling than her. Woody Harrelson (Rampart) is particularly magnificent as the drunken Haymitch as he continues to be (despite all conventional wisdom) one of the most compelling actors of the last fifteen years (when he’s given the right roles).

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New-comer to the franchise Jena Malone also steals every second she’s on screen as the deliciously bitchy Johanna who quickly reveals her own hidden depths, but anyone who’s seen Donnie Darko or Saved! knows how talented she is. And Sam Claflin is charming with enough of an edge of “is he good or bad” to make him interesting despite the ultimate conclusion. And of course, Stanley Tucci, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Donald Sutherland all turn in great roles for a series they are probably too talented to be a part of.

That’s not to discount Jennifer Lawrence’s performance. After Silver Linings Playbook and Winter’s Bone, she’s secured her title as her generation’s most promising actress, but Katniss was a particularly thin role to begin with and it feels like she has even little do this time around. Katniss is particularly “ethos”-less in this entry compared to her comrades and that makes it even harder to care for her. Her saving grace as a character this time around is that she’s usually not too far from Peeta and he can make anyone look like a character from a Kenneth Lonergan film (which is so weird cause he’s not that boring in the books).

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By focusing so much on the flatness of Katniss’s character in this entry (and a general sense that the early exposition and world-building didn’t work nearly as well on screen as it did in the book), I should reiterate that I really enjoyed Catching Fire. And, in many meaningful ways, it is a significant improvement over the first film. But, I also couldn’t stop thinking about those things the entire time the film was running. If you’re on the edge about whether or not you should see the film after this review, don’t be. You should. It’s one of the best “event” films of the year. I just wish Katniss was a more well-rounded heroine for our modern age.

Final Score: B+

 

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When movies are shot on paper-thin budgets but go on to be massive successes anyway, it gives heart to independent film-makers around the world that you don’t need a studio-sized checkbook to make an appealing movie that others will want to see. Whether that’s Paranormal Activity, Clerks, or The Blair Witch Project, there are plenty of great examples of accomplishing a lot with very little (Paranormal Activity was first shot in 2007 on a $15,000 budget and now it’s one of the most profitable films of all time). 1992’s El Mariachi was very profitable if not a huge box office smash (it made around $2 million compared to the $7,000 it required to shoot it), but it’s success is notable for an entirely different reason. With a movie financed almost entirely by taking part in a medical research study, Robert Rodriguez (The Faculty) shot himself to international superstardom as a filmmaker and it only got better from this impressive debut.

Although it will become somewhat clear that I have nothing but the utmost respect for Robert Rodriguez and El Mariachi, that respect is primarily related to how professional this film is able to feel despite the fact that Rodriguez had never made a feature-length film before, shot the movie entirely in single takes, and made it for a grand total of $7,000. Because, at the end of the day, El Mariachi is a B-movie at it’s heart (though, let’s face it, all of Rodriguez’s films are), and if this same movie were made on a budget of over half a million dollars, people would probably laugh in his face. But, the film was shot for $7,000 and for someone who struggled to shoot a five minute short film on a literal $0 budget with film-making tools given to me for free, it’s impressive to an absurd degree that Rodriguez was able to make this film.

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When a white gangster, Moco (Peter Marquardt) in Mexico double-crosses a vengeance-fueled Mexican hit man, Azul (Reinol Martinez), an all-out war breaks out between Moco’s men and the one-man death army known as Azul. Azul’s MO is to wander around as a traveling Mariachi but he secretly keeps his stash of weapons hidden inside his guitar case to be able to be pulled out at a moment’s notice. And this spells trouble when an actually mariachi, known only in the film as El Mariachi (Carlos Gallardo), stumbles into town just looking for a job and a place to play his music. But when a case of mistaken identity leads to El Mariachi being mistaken for Azul, El Mariachi becomes the prime target of Moco’s men and though he flees to the safety of a saloon ran by the beautiful Domino (Consuelo Gomez), that only spells more trouble for himself and his unwilling savior.

I won’t waste your time harping on any of the performances of the principal actors because none of them are worth praise (though Carlos Gallardo seemed like he had potential. It was a shame his career never really took off after this film). Instead, what’s impressive is Rodriguez’s ability to tell a mostly compelling action story (that was a fun spin on the classic North by Northwest tale of mistaken identity) with so few tools at his disposal. Even this early on, Rodriguez’s talents as a pop auteur were on full display and even as a neophyte, Rodriguez already had a mastery of pacing and editing. In fact, it’s the editing of the film that I often found the most impressive because as someone who’s written, directed, shot, and edited a film, editing is without question the hardest part.

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I’ll keep this review extra short cause it’s been a couple days since I’ve watched it and other than being a feat of budget wizardry, there’s not a hell of a lot to say about El Mariachi other than how enjoyable it remains even 21 years later. There’s nothing deep about this movie. It’s an action movie centered around a case of mistaken identity that happens to feature a surprisingly sympathetic hero and love interest. If you aren’t a fan of B-Action films, knowing that Robert Rodriguez made this movie on a shoe-string budget won’t make you like it more. But, for those who have a soft spot in their heart for camp, El Mariachi is a delightful exercise in independent film-making and a fascinating insight into the formative years of a star who is one of the most talented popcorn filmmakers out there today.

Final Score: B

 

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(A quick aside before my actual review. Yes, I know there’s supposed to be an accent mark over the “e” in “Léon” in the title of this piece but I have no idea how to add it. Also, it feels like it’s ten million degrees in my room right now so I apologize if any of my writing is unintelligible. My brain is totally fried.)

The poetic action film is the Great White Whale of film-making for men that don’t want to feel guilty about testosterone-fueled entertainment. We want to believe it’s out there somewhere, but despite all of that, 99% of the time we’re chasing a myth. 1994’s Léon: The Professional from French director Luc Besson (1990’s La Femme Nikita) is likely the closest cinema’s ever come to the truly poetic action film. Though the film is not without its flaws, its devotion to story, mood, and characters alongside a hyperviolent tale of both revenge and love marked Luc Besson as one of the rare purveyors of action cinema that is also a true auteur. The Professional is the sort of film that early period Tarantino could have been proud of, and thanks to an electric big screen debut from Natalie Portman (Black Swan), The Professional is the definition of a flawed masterpiece.

Léon (Margaret‘s Jean Reno) is a cleaner. But, he’s a cleaner for the Italian mob which means he’s a hitman. And he’s a damn good one though his code of “No women. No kids,” means he has a moral system he operates by. And besides the fact that he’s an almost mind-bogglingly efficient killer, Léon is almost a child at heart. He can not read English. He cares for a single potted plant like it were his own child. And he goes to watch old Gene Kelly movies at the theatre with the pure adulation of only the most innocent at heart. He barely even spends the money he earns which mostly just sits in the “bank” of his mobster boss, Tony (Moonstruck‘s Danny Aiello). But, when he crosses path with Mathilda (Natalie Portman), a 12 year old girl living in his apartment building, his simple life is thrown violently off track.

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The chain-smoking, frequently-cursing Mathilda is the emotionally and physically abused daughter of a local hood who gets himself in over his head with a corrupt and borderline psychotic D.E.A. Agent, Stansfield (The Dark Knight Rises‘s Gary Oldman). When Mathilda’s father and the rest of her family is murdered by Stansfield and other corrupt cops, Mathilda’s life is only spared because she was out buying milk at the time the hit went down. And, against his better judgment, Léon welcomes Mathilda into his home to protect her. Though Mathilda could care less about her abusive father, Stansfield’s men killed her four year old brother, and she desperately wants revenge against the men that killed her family. And so, she forces her way even more into Léon’s life and makes him teach her how to be a cleaner so that she can get the revenge she so desperately craves.

Out of the three principal leads in the film (Portman, Reno, and Goldman), you have one simply jaw-dropping performance, one deliciously hammy performance, and one “meh” performance that works within the context of the character. Natalie Portman’s ferocious turn as Mathilda is easily one of the top 10 child performances of all time, and it should be no surprise that she would later go on to win an Academy Award for Black Swan. She should have been nominated for this. There’s a scene midway through the film where Mathilda puts a gun to her head to force Léon to teach her to be a cleaner where the sadness and desperation that is consuming Mathilda is painfully apparent. Most adult actresses would have struggled with the part. Portman blew it out of the water as a 13 year old.

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Gary Oldman’s performance is the one that I refer to as being deliciously hammy. There is no question that it’s over-the-top. It is insanely over the top, but Stansfield is a villain of monstrous, pure evil, and Luc Besson gave Goldman the freedom to run crazy with the performance. There are two moments in particular that stand out. One is him sashaying to Mozart as he massacres Mathilda’s family. And the other is the infamous “EVERYONE!” quip during the climactic action sequence. Jean Reno is, unfortunately, not the world’s greatest actor. His English wasn’t very good in the 90s, and it shows in this film. But, Léon is a man of quiet contemplation and few words, and so, though Reno doesn’t deliver one of the most exciting performances of the film, he certainly delivers what is needed for his character.

As I’ve said earlier, beyond Portman’s star-making performance (had she never made another film, this would have been legacy-cementing in its own right), The Professional soars because of its singular commitment to character-development and genuine emotional pay-offs over typical action pyrotechnics. Let their be no mistake. The climax of the film is as thrilling as it gets, but its power rests in the fact that two hours into the film, we are now incredibly invested into the outcome of Léon and Mathilda’s lives. They are fully rounded, three dimensional characters, and just like in La Femme Nikita, the psychological aspect of these characters throws off more sparks than action scenes ever could. As a warped coming-of-age tale as well as an equally warped romance, The Professional finds the poetry in its carnage.

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When The Professional was first released in 1994, it generated a fair bit of controversy for the seemingly Lolita-esque nature of the relationship between Mathilda and Léon. And while I think Mathilda’s attraction to her mentor and savior was decidedly one-way (and based mostly around the lack of a reasonable father figure in her life), I have an entirely new set of contentions with the film’s handling of a thirteen year old heroine. The Professional sexualizes Mathilda. That’s just a fact. From the many angles that the film shoots her, it’s clear that Besson’s camera views Portman as a sexual object. Though it’s clearly not to the level of exploitation of Brooke Shields in Pretty Baby, I lost track of the number of times that the film shot Portman from the ass down. It was weird and it made me incredibly uncomfortable. I think the controversy surrounding Mathilda’s love for Léon was mostly misplaced because this is why people should have been upset.

When the film was released in America (where it was called The Professional as opposed to Léon in Europe), we were given a massively pared down version of the film, and though I’ve fallen in love with the European cut of the movie, I would be interested in seeing the edited version of the film because besides the sexualization of Natalie Portman, my most substantive complaint about The Professional is that it drags a little towards the end. I understand that I love this film because of the character development and commitment to building these characters up, but at times, certain elements felt like filler. Also, there’s one scene during the climactic action sequence where Jean Reno bellows (there really isn’t a better word to use here) that is the bad kind of hammy.

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If you’ve not seen The Professional, you need to drop whatever you’re doing and watch it immediately. I’m not exaggerating when I say that outside of the confines of particular war films, it’s arguably one of the greatest action films ever made. It has its flaws, and its particularly French (i.e. Louis Malle committed the same sins in Pretty Baby) with the sexuality of a young girl struck me as heartily disturbing. However, I can forgive Luc Besson his trespasses when the rest of his storytelling and character-building are so strong. From the first time I watched this film more than ten years ago, I fell in love with The Professional. And with each viewing, I find something new to appreciate and notice. Luc Besson is an auteur, and in a world where seemingly every action film (outliers like Looper the glorious exception) feels like a Michael Bay debacle, one must take the time to appreciate the art of a movie like Léon: The Professional.

Final Score: A-

 

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(A quick aside before my actual review: I watched this film Thursday night with my dad. We didn’t get home until after midnight. I worked Friday until 2 AM, and then today I went to see Monsters University with my sister which I will also be hopefully reviewing today. The moral of this story is that my brain is at least minorly fractured. Hopefully, these two reviews make sense)

After the dark and crushing ending to 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, there is one theme  that seems to have held constant across the entirety of the zombie genre of horror. The zombie curse becomes an allegory for humanity’s existential dread and our own certain knowledge that one day soon, something will wipe us out. There is a rotting, hope-sucking fatalism at the heart of all great zombie films and even in the lightest moments in the best zombie works, you always know in the back of your head that any minor victories will only lead to the most tragic fall later. So, when World War Z trades in the usual stark damnation of the zombie genre for actual, legitimate hope, it is only one of many signs that this particular zombie film lacks any teeth.

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Perhaps it’s the film’s PG-13 rating and (more likely) perhaps it’s the film’s obvious and pathetic attempts to appeal to a mainstream summer blockbuster audience, but from beginning to end, World War Z turns the zombie apocalypse into a sterile, market-tested crowd pleaser that isn’t nearly as fun (or terrifying) as it wants itself to be. World War Z has individual set pieces that are a legitimate rush (a moment in a crowded plane stands out for sheer inspiration), but with emotionally wooden characters, mostly ineffective performances, and literally no sense of stakes in the outcomes of these characters, World War Z falls prey to most of the bad parts of zombie films without any of the gore-ridden excess or social commentary that makes the best Romero pictures so fun.

Gerry Lane (The Assassination of Jesse James‘s Brad Pitt) is a former U.N. investigator who finds himself caught in the middle of a mysterious infection that is turning humanity into murderous, suicidal shells whose only purpose is to continue spreading their infection. Gerry’s family is with him when the infection breaks loose in Philadelphia (and the rest of the world) and though Gerry and his family are able to escape to a UN battleship in the Atlantic ocean, the price for Gerry’s family’s spot on that boat is Gerry returning to field duty and helping to discover the cause of the zombie outbreak before it’s too late to save humanity. And, thus, Gerry is sent on a trip around the world from Korea to Israel to Wales as he searches for answers and for a cure.

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Even more than the fact that World War Z trades in zombie ultra-violence for confusing and schizophrenic editing (in a vein similar to but not as well-exectued as The Hunger Games film), this movie is plagued by a lack of a reason to care. Having watched post-apocalyptic films for decades now, writers and directors have to provide more than the potential extermination of humanity to garner an audience’s sympathies, and World War Z fails there on every possible front. The film adopts an episodic approach to it’s storytelling (keeping in line with its summer blockbuster lineage as opposed to traditional zombie archetypes), and in the downtime between set pieces, the writers fail again and again to develop its characters enough to generate even the most marginal interest in these figures as anything more than plot devices.

Brad Pitt is serviceable in the role of Gerry. But, considering that I think Brad Pitt is one of Hollywood’s most talent and consistently intriguing A-listers (just watch Killing Them Softly and tell me I’m wrong), serviceable is not enough. Pitt gives the distinct impression the entire film that he’s only here to pick up a paycheck, and during what is supposed to be one of the film’s most emotional moments during the movie’s end, Pitt doesn’t sell the uncertainty and despair that must have been rocking through Gerry at that moment. None of the performances make much of an impression although Mireille Enos’s turn as Gerry’s wife was interesting enough that I’d like to keep an eye on this new talent.

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I hope that I haven’t given the impression that I totally hated this movie because I didn’t. When the actual action is taking place (and let there be no question, World War Z is an action movie that happens to feature zombies), it is fast-paced and exciting, and it has several moments that are just buzzing with energy and innovation. A scene where zombies make their way onto a crowded plane is the best of the bunch (and prominently featured in the trailers), but other moments like an escape from an airport and the breaching of the walls of Israel have real verve and pleasure. Sadly there isn’t enough tying these moments together.

If you like real zombie movies of the Romero variety (even the cheesier ones like Diary of the Dead), you will probably find yourself disappointed by World War Z because it lacks practically all of the hallmarks of zombie cinema. And if you’re a fan of summer blockbusters of the Rolan Emmerich variety (i.e. Independence Day), you may still find yourself thinking that World War Z is wanting in some vague aspect. At the end of the day, the film gets the job done with its action-fueled moments, but it doesn’t accomplish nearly enough for just how dead and lifeless this film feels (pun about half-intended).

Final Score: C+

 

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Adapting Superman to any medium, even his birthplace of comic books, is no easy feat. Superhero stories are fueled by epic conflict, but when you are nearly a god (though not to a Dr. Manhattan-level of omniscience/omnipotence), it’s hard to design scenarios where the odds aren’t seemingly stacked overwhelmingly in Kal-El’s favor. And, in the process, most film adaptations of the Superman mythos ignore the godlike aspect of the last son of Krypton. Director Zack Snyder (Sucker Punch) understands how crucial Superman’s world-shattering strength is to his character, and in the process makes the first Superman film that really grasps how powerful this man is. However, the film also constantly left me hungry for the vulnerable human element that I loved so much in Superman Returns.

Because, to Man of Steel‘s credit, there hasn’t been a Superman film yet that truly delivers the sort of world-rending sci-fi action on display in practically every action sequence of Man of Steel. Alongside The Avengers and Avatar, this movie may very well have some of the best fight scenes in recent memory. Man of Steel seemingly draws as much inspiration for its action choreography from Japanese anime as it does traditional Western comic book influences, and the high-flying Dragonball Z-esque theatrics were a delight. And, in true Zack Snyder fashion, the action of the film almost never lets up from beginning to end, which is ultimately a shame because I wanted more of an emotional connection with the characters on screen which it rarely delivered.

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After rampant destruction of its natural resources leads to the imminent destruction of Krypton, Jor-El (Les Miserables‘ Russell Crowe) is forced to send his only son, Kal-El (Henry Cavill), to Earth as the last chance for the Kryptonian race. And, so baby Kal-El lands on Earth where he’s discovered in a Kansas corn field by Jonathan Kent (The Untouchables‘ Kevin Costner) and the radiation from Earth’s yellow sun endows him with superhuman strength including super-hearing, x-ray vision, heat vision, and flight. His powers even gain him the attention of intrepid report, Lois Lane (The Fighter‘s Amy Adams). But when the genocidal Kryptonian General Zod (Revolutionary Road‘s Michael Shannon) arrives on Earth looking to make a new Krypton on Earth’s ashes, Kal-El, known now as Clark Kent, must answer the call to being a hero and become the Superman that Earth needs.

Though that plot seems simple enough (in many ways, Man of Steel is a conventional origin story in the very modern vogue style), the movie is fast-paced and entertaining enough to never feel like it’s dragging over its two hour running time. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the film rarely gives you time to breathe, and it’s all action, all the time focus ultimately becomes a tunnel vision obstructing us from getting a clearer view of why Clark would want to remain loyal to a humanity that was not always so kind and loving to him. Zack Snyder has a reputation as being all style and no substance, and sadly, it’s on full display in Man of Steel.

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Henry Cavill (and it’s difficult to sell just how important this is) looks like Superman should look like. He has that all American charm, good looks, and appeal, and I can’t imagine anyone having any complaints about his casting. His performance was nothing special, but it didn’t require him to do anything special either. Michael Shannon gave one of the better supporting performances for this blog in recent memory in Revolutionary Road and while clearly General Zod isn’t that kind of character, he made him appropriately larger than life. My only complaint in the casting of the film was Amy Adams who was as miscast as Lois Lane as Kate Bosworth was in Superman Returns.

I’m going to keep this review short because this is the first movie review I’ve written in like nearly two weeks now. I’ve been at Bonnaroo and writing articles preparing for Bonnaroo and writing articles for when I came back from Bonnaroo and working at the bar. This is my first day off in forever where I don’t have to go anywhere and I can just stay at home and enjoy myself. And that’s what I plan on doing. Probably going to play either The Last of Us or Bioshock Infinite. If you’re in the mood for a bombastic, science fiction action spectacular, Man of Steel delivers and then some with some of the craziest action scenes I’ve ever seen. If you’re wanting any depth with your superhero tale, you’ll be disappointed.

Final Score: B

 

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I am a sucker for imaginative storytelling and engrossing world building. From a classical storytelling perspective, the Russell T. Davies years of Doctor Who or the early seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation aren’t bastions of great characters or “important” insights into the human condition, but as someone who loves fantastical new worlds, they scratch that need. Ever since I was little and I was introduced to The Hobbit, I’ve had a constant desire to see new things and explore worlds I’ve never encountered before. 1984’s The Last Starfighter has a wonderful premise and a compelling mythology, but the film suffers in its execution with a story that ultimately feels woefully deficient and underdeveloped.

Perhaps it’s the screenwriter in me (long time readers should know that I’ve written two unpublished screenplays and I’m hard at work on a third one right now), but I found myself nitpicking every step of the way little areas where I felt The Last Starfighter missed a storytelling opportunity or had major characters seem embarrassingly thinly drawn. In fact, if I had to sum up my reaction to this film in one quick sentence, it’s that The Last Starfighter rests on the laurels of an ahead of it’s time basic plot but then fails to properly capitalize with compelling villains, good acting, or proper pacing. Though these thoughts didn’t keep me from enjoying the film, I kept getting pulled out of the experience after one cheesy interlude after another.

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Alex Rogan (Lance Guest) is your average teenage boy living his last summer before the beginning of college. Alex lives in a trailer park with his mother and little brother as well as his girlfriend, Maggie (Catherine Mary Stewart), and he dreams of nothing more than going to a nice college and getting out of the Starlite Starbrite trailer park once and for all. And the only thing that Alex seems to enjoy in life any more besides the company of his girlfriend is the Starfighter arcade box up at the general store near the trailer park. One night Alex finally beats the Starfighter game and finds his life changed forever.

It turns out that the Starfighter video game was a secret test left on Earth by the alien Centauri (Robert Preston) to find new recruits for the Starfighter defense program defending the galactic frontier. Centauri shows up on Earth and whisks Alex away to an alien-filled space station to convince Alex to help defend the galaxy, but when it becomes clear that Alex’s life is in danger, Alex wants to go home. But, it isn’t long before he’s back on Earth and realizes that everyone he loves and holds dear will be in danger if he doesn’t fight. And Alex is forced to take up the call and become the titular last starfighter.

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None of the performances in the film are anything to write home about and pretty much all of the aliens are invariably over the top. Lance Guest is appropriately sensitive and lost as the hero and Catherine Mary Stewart also gels as his girlfriend, but it’s also clear that both were cast more for their good looks than for any acting talent. Robert Preston hams it up in every single second he’s on screen as the Merlin-esque Centauri to the point of distraction, and I’m not entirely sure what was up with the weird little laugh Alex’s alien navigator Grig had to do every time he thought something was funny.

Surprisingly, the special effects of the film both look like a product of the mid 1980s, but they also don’t distract from the overall experience of the film by coming off as too cheesy (except for maybe the absurd encephalitis that the primary alien species seems to suffer from). In fact, the 1980s video game look of some of the space ships and the space battles actually adds some perhaps unintentional charm to the film as it captures the arcade aesthetic that propelled Alex into space in the first place.

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If you are a fan of cheesy science fiction (particularly of the 1980s variety), by all means check The Last Starfighter out if you’ve never gotten around to it. It will be a pleasant diversion, and it will harken back to a day of more innocent film-making. It’s not perfect, and I wish I could have had a crack at writing the script for this film’s story, but it’s fun. If you don’t enjoy this particular brand of science fiction, you likely won’t see the point of this movie and may even think it’s quite stupid. That’s fair, but I enjoyed the hour and forty minutes I spent with this film.

Final Score: B